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ASUU and the seasonal union shakedown

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Minister of Education, Professor Adamu  Adamu (left); Minister of Labour and Productivity, Dr. Chris Ngige; President, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Ayuba Wabba; Deputy President, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Professor Victor Osoduko and President ASUU, Professor Biodun Ogunyemi during a meeting between Federal Government and ASUU in Abuja. Photo: Lucy Ladidi Elukpo.

Every couple of years, we seem to go through the same episodes. ASUU goes on strike due to the government failing to implement an agreement. Talks are held, and after deliberations, the strikes are called off, typically with some new agreement signed. In most cases, the strikes last a few weeks, although there have been instances where the strikes have lasted for months. The strikes are not unique to ASUU though. For some reason, the strikes are typically followed by strikes from SSANU, JOHESU, and a lot of other unions. Almost as if they operate on some type of schedule. But why do these strikes occur so frequently?

To get a grasp of this it is important to understand the political cycle and the constraints that the federal government faces. We have had four-year terms since we returned to democracy in 1999. The four-year term means the federal government faces a similar cycle in terms of its interaction with the populace, which presumably has the power to retain or remove the government. To this end, the government is at its freest immediately it is elected. Right after elections, it typically has the goodwill of the people, and more importantly, it has time to rebuild that goodwill in the event it loses it doing something unpopular.

However, as time goes on, and as it gets closer and closer to the next set of elections, the government loses that opportunity to rebuild goodwill if lost. What this means in practice is that the closer you get to elections, the more difficult it is to implement policy that is unpopular, even if it is a good policy. As is common knowledge in policy circles, if you have a difficult policy to implement, do it early and quickly, so you can demonstrate the benefits before the next elections come around.

The goodwill cycle also means that there are times when the government is at its most vulnerable. As you may have guessed, it is not when the government is just freshly elected as at that point, it can still rebuild goodwill. It is also not right before elections, as at that point it can just blame whatever hostility on politics. The point when the government is at its most vulnerable is somewhere in between the two, where it does not have enough time to rebuild good will but also does not have the opportunity to blame it on politics.

It is this vulnerability that ASUU, and other unions, have exploited since the return of democracy in 1999. Since 1999, ASUU has embarked on no less than 14 strikes, although some of those have been just week-long warning strikes. More recently, the strikes appear to have come at the time when the government was most vulnerable. The latest strike is coming just over a year before the next set of elections, at a time when the government has little room to rebuild any lost goodwill. In 2009, it went on strike for three months starting from June, shortly before the death of then President Umaru Yar’Adua. In July 2013, it embarked on another 5-month strike, which ended roughly a year before the elections. Here we are again in 2017, again just over a year to the election season.

Given the vulnerability, what is the best response by the government to the strikes? It is always to make a deal. A deal that reduces the potential for destruction of whatever goodwill the government has left. Goodwill that it will not have the time to rebuild. The deal is typically unimplementable and includes a pay bump and a gentleman’s agreement to not go on strike at least until after elections. The deal works for both parties. For the government it ends the strike, and even though the deal is unimplementable, it can worry about that later. For ASUU, the deal comes with a pay bump, but crucially a deal which will serve as the basis for a future strike. And so, the cycle continues.

To be fair to ASUU, its mandate is to fight for the wellbeing of its members, which unsurprisingly does not include all Nigerians but only those who are academic staff at universities. To that objective, it has done extremely well. It is also not the only union that uses this tactic so it would be unfair to only call them out. Still, it is yet another example of how many of our institutions have turned into rent-seeking agencies focused strictly on getting their share of the national cake.

How do we break out of this cycle of strikes and unimplementable deals? I don’t know, but sooner or later, someone is going to have to figure it out.

Nonso Obikili is an economist currently roaming somewhere between Nigeria and South. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of his employers.


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